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gun fights People left to bleed and burn to death in hellish Mariupol as street battles rage

Hundreds still feared trapped under bombed theatre

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A resident of Mariupol cowers inside a damaged apartment in the besieged port city as battles raged yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

A resident of Mariupol cowers inside a damaged apartment in the besieged port city as battles raged yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

A resident of Mariupol cowers inside a damaged apartment in the besieged port city as battles raged yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

Chechen special forces were fighting house to house in Mariupol yesterday as gun battles were reported in the destroyed city centre.

Moscow said it was “tightening the noose” as Russian-backed forces had reached the centre of the besieged Ukrainian city after weeks of pressure and shelling.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, asked Vladimir Putin to lift the siege and allow humanitarian access and order an immediate ceasefire even as the city’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said fighting had reached the centre.

“Yes, they were active today. Tanks and machine gun battles continue,” he told the BBC from the city under an effective blackout. “Everybody is hiding in bunkers. There’s no city centre left. There isn’t a small piece of land in the city that doesn’t have signs of war.”

Footage, said to have been released by pro-Putin Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, shows heavily armed gunmen bombarding a high-rise building in the city with gunfire in what appears to be a confrontation with Ukrainian soldiers.

The propaganda video shows a dozen or more soldiers firing continuously at the badly damaged building before cutting to a mother and child escaping from the basement. A soldier then emerges from the high-rise with a child on his shoulder, whom he kisses on the cheek, followed by more civilians depicted as being “liberated” by Chechen fighters.

Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency had earlier reported the defence ministry in Moscow as saying separatists in eastern Ukraine, with help from Russia’s armed forces, were “tightening the noose” around Mariupol and that the street fighting was ongoing.

The footage emerged as hundreds were still feared trapped under the rubble after a Russian strike on a theatre in the city, which has already suffered the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the war so far as it was cut off and pounded by artillery and airstrikes.

Its position between the eastern territory controlled by separatists and the Russia-annexed Crimean Peninsula makes it a key strategic target for Moscow.

Tens of thousands of its citizens have fled in recent days – negotiating checkpoints, minefields and shelling. City officials said earlier this week that as much as four-fifths of its buildings had been badly damaged, with 30pc beyond repair.

A Russian strike on the Drama Theatre, which housed hundreds of civilians, had raised the prospect of mass casualties, and yesterday it was not known how many people are trapped.

The theatre was reported to have sheltered as many as 1,300 people, and although city authorities said its bomb shelter had survived intact, hundreds of women and children remain trapped.

Only 130 have so far been rescued, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said. He promised to continue attempts to save people from the ruins “despite shelling”.

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City authorities had said initial information indicated there were no fatalities, but Serhiy Taruta, a Ukrainian MP originally from Mariupol, said many survivors are unable to get clear because the city’s emergency services have been destroyed by the Russians.

“No one understands. Services that are supposed to help are demolished, rescue and utility services are physically destroyed,” he wrote on Facebook. “This means that all the survivors of the bombing will either die under the ruins of the theatre or have already died.”

Russian forces are thought to have known the building contained children. Satellite photos showed the Russian word “children” clearly written on the ground in front and behind the theatre.

One woman said Wednesday’s airstrike happened as people were cooking. “There were 800 people. They were cooking something inside. And when the stage collapsed only about 100 ran away,” she added.

Mr Taruta said civilians had been left to dig through the rubble. “My friends went to help, but due to constant shelling it was not safe.”

Residents who have escaped from Mariupol have described the city as a “hell”, saying people had been left to bleed or burn to death in the streets. Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, said: “In Mariupol, the release of civilians from the rubble of the drama theatre has begun.”

Her statement added: “The building withstood the impact of a high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people hiding in the bomb shelter. Work is under way to unlock the basement.”

Svitlana Zlenko, who escaped the city with her son on Tuesday, said she had spent days sheltering in a school building, using snow for water to cook pasta.

She said they lived in terror of Russian bombs and she described how a bomb had hit the school last week, wounding a woman in the hip. “There is no food, no medicine. Pharmacies, grocery stores, everything is robbed or burned.”

She said police had recommended relatives of the dead open their windows and put the bodies on balconies.

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